By Vaibhav Parik, (Class of 2020) Last semester, as I approached the end of my first
In light of the recently established curfew, there is an urgent need to have an open conversation.
Sparsh Agarwal, Class of 2019
In 1981, followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh set up the City of Rajneeshpuram in the middle of the State of Oregon. It was the utter disregard of the Rajneeshee community for their surroundings and the people that lived in them which sowed the seeds for their protracted conflict with the original inhabitants of Wasco County. Ashoka University is no cult, however, there are stark parallels that we share with Rajneeshpuram. We have descended upon the village of Asawarpur in the Sonipat district of Haryana almost as an alien ship, similar to the Rajneeshees descending on Wasco County. If there is anything to be learnt from the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram it is that the difference in ways of the people in the area around us requires us to be both logical and sociologically sensitive about the consequences of our actions.
In light of the recently established curfew, there is an urgent need to have an open conversation about the consequences of going to illegal establishments across from the university gates on us, as a community, and on the community that exists outside our gates.
However, the purpose of this column is not to take any moral pedestal on this issue. Its purpose is provide an understanding of the unintended repercussions of going out to the illegal establishment outside the University gates. It also follows from an important Facebook post that was made by a student last year on the Undergraduates group.
“The ancient Indian King after whom this University is named asked the question:
What is Dhamma?
It is having few faults and many good deeds; mercy, charity, truthfulness and integrity.
I commit myself to these values, and through them, move from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light and from death to immortality.”
This is the university oath. Following from the tradition and teachings of the Emperor Ashoka, it is the commitment to integrity that has stumbled down from the rock edicts and stares all of us in our faces today. I like to believe that this integrity functions on three levels: the social character of integrity that requires one to stand up for something, the individual level of harmony within the self, and, on a larger philosophical level, having an understanding of one’s moral obligations.
Part 1: Social Integrity
Most people have been first hand witnesses to what happens at SSP, while others must have heard about it in vivid details as well. Nonetheless, it is important to consider the establishment from the point of view of those who inhabit the village, who also happen to be former owners of the land on which this college has been built. When they sold their lands for the construction of a University, they must have had certain notions of what that would entail as well. One does not need to go out and talk to villagers to understand how divorced Ashoka is from the real world around it: one of the most fundamental alienations being in the form of the lifestyle that we as students of Ashoka University (from a particular socio-economic background) bring with ourselves. Besides being subjected suddenly to this absolute change of lifestyles and societal notions, it is also worth imagining whether they signed up to having to bear the burden of listening to blasting music through the night every Thursday and Friday; to see the bottle dripping, the weed burning and (occasionally) blood flowing.
Ashoka is often termed as a bubble. If it is so, then, not being cognizant of the impact that we as an institution have on the surrounding ecosystem is the simplest way of this bubble bursting.
Currently, one of the exemplary activities that a number of students of Ashoka have been a part of is the Neev program, which aims to make the University more accessible to the surrounding areas. It should not come as a surprise that many parents from Asawarpur have expressed their disillusionment (by wanting to pull out their wards) with the University because of the example that we set for their children every weekend. Moving beyond the sociological, there is also an urgent need to think about this issue empathetically (“mercy and charity” if you remember correctly). Many students at Ashoka have nobly advocated for the rights of the construction workers, the most marginal of all those who are a part of this campus. The rights, the conditions of these workers and the hours of work have all been scrutinized and spoken about ad nauseum. However, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is the same worker who toils during the day to build our campus who has to stay up at night due to the ruckus that is created by us when we go out to party. Does the mere hanging of a painting in the Atrium, to signify their contribution, make up for our utter disregard for them outside the canvas and the frame?
Part 2: Harmony within the self
Haryana comes from the words ‘Hari’ (Vishnu) and ‘ayana’ (home). The Haryana Tourism department would sure like everyone to believe that the state is truly an Abode of the Gods. However, there are dangers that lurk outside the Ashoka bubbles that make it closer to being the Highway to Hell, if anything. I don’t know who the Hades is, but what I do know is that there is no guarantee of personal safety whatsoever.
There have already been documented instances of molestation, voyeuristic videos of women being non-consensually recorded and the frequent occurrence of violence. There have also been reports of suspicious vans circling the area, potentially of men who might have heard of this oasis in the middle of Haryana where young women in large numbers go out to party. Now imagine individuals from neighboring areas or universities coming to the establishment and forcing someone to get into their car at the tyranny of their gun, or worse pulling the trigger. Imagination does not need to run wild; an event of this sort is not even a 6 or 10 sigma event (like the Iranian Revolution or the Financial Crisis). There are serious safety hazards of going out, which go beyond the occasional drunken frenzies that Ashoka students might have with their Jindal counterparts. And surely one can always say that it is wrong if anything of this sort happens, but that would be similar to getting into the cage of a lion arguing that the lion should respect your right to existence. Is a little bit of liquid courage worth entering the lair of the lion!
To take this self interested argument further, let us take a step back and contemplate the larger issues at stake. Another event who’s possibility of occurrence is not tough to imagine is an FIR being lodged against a student from the University. In the event that this happens, the consequences would be severe. It’s not like our University is particularly liked by the current government anyway. One only has to look at the tweets of some of the most influential representatives of the government (Rajiv Malhotra, S. Gurumurthy, Mohandas Pai) to see this. In this extremely polarised political environment, where the government is looking for an opportunity to clamp down on institutions like ours, by terming us as a second JNU, is it truly prudent to continue with our parties at SSP. If the BJP (or any other future government) is to get us, let them at least get us on a noble count rather than something like this (in fact, if as students we are to see the back of prison bars, might it be for something like the infamous article 144 of the IPC than for illegal underage drinking). In today’s day and age when the name of an institution can get very easily besmirched as has been seen with example of JNU, one can only imagine what we would have to go through as an institution as well as individually (in terms of careers).
Lady Prudence was standing by the University gates every Thursday night advising us to mend our course, before it is too late; before an unforeseen event like an accident, or a scuffle with the law enforcement agency happens, before the Administration has a valid justification to curtain our freedoms for safety concerns. And we would have done well to abide by it. Yet, the fact that we didn’t, we only have ourselves to blame today. We can talk about why the administration did not have the Town Hall to discuss this with us before taking this step, but the question can also be turned around: when we knew that this was happening, and the consequences it brought with it, why didn’t we as a community have a Town Hall of our own?
Part 3: Moral Obligations
There is also a moral obligation that we as students have to all that we are studying. Ashokan ideals involve developing critical thinking abilities as envisaged by our founders, shunning our sense of entitlement as I think of it, and having fidelity to some idea of truth as the Vice Chancellor had once outlined. In this campus where we have unanimously maintained a conspiracy of silence, this Town Hall shot from the pistol of truth. Have we been truly applying our critical thinking abilities, what we pride ourselves on, outside the classroom to try to understand the ineffable impact of our actions?
There have also been absurd arguments made about why the law enforcement agencies cannot protect our rights, or why there cannot be a bar inside campus if we aren’t allowed to go out. However, to expect the law enforcement agency to protect the rights of those who are breaking the law themselves or to ask for a bar, reeks of a typically Ashokan sense of entitlement. There seems to be no need to remind people what the law is however, what needs to be explained is a simple Latin legal maxim: “Dura Lex Sed Lex”. The Law is harsh, but it is the Law. And the Wheel of Law depicted on the Ashokan pillar demands of us to abide by it.
The entire SSP story ultimately boils down to a dichotomy of pleasures and principles. We all want to indulge ourselves in the pleasures of going out and kicking back after the end of a tiring week of academic work. And yet all of us know about the consequences on a principled level. Integrity as envisaged by the Emperor in who’s name we get our degrees would expect that we stand by our principles, since those are our true moral obligations. As Jefferson would have said: “In matters of Principles, stand like an Ashokan Pillar.”
This article was a speech delivered by Opinions Editor Sparsh Agarwal at The Mauryan Debates on the topic ‘Are Ashoka students living up to Emperor Ashoka’s Ideals?’
Sparsh’s last article was on Sonipat’s Economies of Vices.